When you think of a wedding, your mind likely jumps to popular elements such as the cake, the dress, and, admittedly, whether or not there will be an open bar. Once the vows are recited and the reception begins, though, what truly sets the party ambiance isn’t the dessert table or the signature drinks; it’s the music. While most couples likely have a reception playlist full of Bruno Mars and John Legend, many of the important tracks aren't always the modern ones. If you really think about it, traditional and cultural music are a guiding beat behind most celebrations, and they're a huge part of many wedding receptions.
“Weddings are about celebration, and celebrating, in general, is a reflection of the culture you’re from,” says Malike Adigun, a wedding DJ and founder of Curate Entertainment. “Music and dance are a big part of what makes different cultures unique. At weddings, you want to express the essence and identity of both partners' families coming together, and one of the most important ways this is done is by participating in cultural dances.”
Meet the Expert
Having studied dance her entire life, Lara Mahler, a wedding planner and founder of The Privilege is Mine, shares that incorporating cultural music is integral as it represents the union of a couple's histories, families, and beliefs. “Cultural dances are typically taught within the family as children, and you grow up listening to the music and dancing these dances at family functions,” Mahler explains. Additionally, not only do these numbers allow guests to experience the couple’s cultural upbringing, but it pays respect to generations past as well.
Interested in learning more? From the Nigerian practice of “spraying money” to Cuba's "Conga Line," read on for 10 cultural music moments from around the globe.
Spraying Money/The Money Dance
One of the most famous cultural wedding dances is the Money Dance, and variations of this tradition are popular around the world, as seen in Poland, Greece, Mexico, Cuba, Fiji, and Nigeria (to name a few). “As a Nigerian native, as soon as I got engaged, I knew participating in a Money Dance was exactly what I wanted to do, just like generations before me had done,” Adigun shares.
While the exact details can vary from culture to culture, in general, Money Dances are a time when guests interact with the newlyweds by pinning money to their clothes (or showering them with bills) while dancing to an upbeat song. In Nigeria, guests encircle the couple and “spray” them with money to symbolize affection, happiness, and good fortune. “If you’re invited to a Nigerian wedding, have cash ready since this is a traditional way to bless the couple symbolically and monetarily,” Adigun explains.
The Caribbean Palanace Dance
If you want high energy and sheer fun, it doesn’t get more lively than the Palance. The dance—which is more about movement than strict choreography—is named after the popular soca song by JW & Blaze. To simply break it down, it requires guests at Caribbean weddings to jump to the right and left side of the room, whenever the song instructs the crowd to "palance” (a Trinidadian word that means “to party and have fun”).
To make things even more exciting, guests will often wave flags or napkins in the air while dancing. This stems from the celebration of Carnival, where participants wave flags from their native countries as a symbol of pride and respect.
The Cuban Conga Line
One moment that is guaranteed to get guests up from their seats is the Conga line. This tradition doesn’t involve dancing in a circle, but instead, is more of a follow-the-leader activity. Participants form a train and weave around the room, with more people hopping in as the line passes. It's also traditionally done to the beat of conga drums (hence the dance’s name), with guests stepping or kicking to each strike. The exact origin of the Latin dance is up for debate—though many sources credit its origins and popularity to enslaved Africans forcibly brought to Cuba—the Conga is a dance of victory, unity, and community.
The Irish Ceilidh Dance
Typically done with a swing-style set band called a Ceilidh (hence the name), the Irish Ceilidh dance is similar to American barn or square dancing—just with an Irish twist. Essentially, the band's "caller" guides guests throughout the song by instructing them on what to do, varying in movements from spinning, switching partners, and stomping.
While modern couples sometimes incorporate non-Irish hits in their Ceilidh dances, traditionally, the tunes are full of bagpipes and fiddles; and most couples select songs that nod to their heritage and ancestral home. No matter the music, the Ceilidh is a beloved Irish tradition seen at all celebrations, from weddings to births and anniversaries.
The Jewish Hora (Horah)
The Jewish Hora, also known as the “Horah” or “the chair dance," is another cultural music moment known around the world. For this dance, the newlyweds are lifted into the air on chairs, while their family and friends dance around them in a big circle (sometimes two circles, divided by gender). Mahler further explains that while in the air, the couple holds on to the same handkerchief or napkin, signifying their union and connection.
This lively, vivacious number takes place during the wedding reception, oftentimes at the very beginning, right after the first dance. In terms of music, “Hava Nagila,” is the song that is typically played, but today, modern couples are branching out and choosing their own tracks. Oftentimes, they even select multiple songs since the Hora has no time limit, and can last a few minutes to a few hours.
The Turkish Halay Dance
As the national dance of Turkey, the Halay is understandably a major focal point at Turkish weddings. The popular Middle Eastern folk dance—also known as Yalli or Dilan—dates back centuries and symbolizes unity. While the specifics can vary between villages and families, the Halay usually starts with guests holding hands either in a line or a semi-circle. Similar to square dancing, a leader calls out the steps, while the first and last dancers in the row wave handkerchiefs to the beat of the song.
What’s really exciting for participants, though, is the pace of the dance. The melody (which consists of drums and pipes) starts slow but speeds up until it’s quite fast, making it an exhilarating activity for dancers and viewers alike.
The Scottish Sword Dance
If weddings get your heart pumping, just wait until you see a Scottish Sword Dance. While this moment historically represents a victory in battle, Sword Dances are popular at Scottish weddings as a sign of celebration. Often performed by the newlyweds, the wedding party, or family members, it's done by placing two crossed swords (or sometimes axes) on the ground in an "x" or "+" shape. The performers then dance around the four-quarters of the swords, impressively hopping over the (often dull) blades. Traditionally this is done as the last dance of a wedding, with the accompaniment of bagpipes and drums.
The Greek Tsamiko Dance
Going to a Greek wedding usually means experiencing the Tsamiko, a well-known dance you probably saw in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The interactive number was once a "man only" dance, but nowadays, everyone at the party can join in. To participate, guests hold hands at a 90-degree angle and form a circle, dancing to the beat and changing directions with the tempo. Sometimes a lead dancer will perform leaps, jumps, and stunts in the center of the circle, while other times, the newlyweds will dance in the middle. Expect to hear joyous chants of “Opa!” as the number speeds up.
The Italian Tarantella Dance
Spinning, flirting, teasing, and grooving, the Italian Tarantella has it all! “I come from a very big Italian family, so the Tarantella was a dance I grew up with—every wedding I went to, we did it,” says Mahler. The dance originated in Southern Italy back in the 15th century, and was named after the “tarantism” disease that was thought to be caused by the bite of a tarantula spider. The rumored cure? Frenzied dancing, of course.
This group number requires all wedding guests to spin and twirl—while holding hands in a circle—around the married couple. A DJ, MC, or caller often shouts out movements for the group, and sometimes props like tambourines are included to add more excitement to the energetic number.
The Electric Slide
While guests from many different cultures know the Electric Slide, Adigun says the dance is a “love language” for the Black community. “This is something we do at cookouts, birthdays, and pretty much any celebration,” he explains. “When it comes to weddings, it’s something that’s expected;" and the four-wall line dance involves choreographed moves like kicks, back steps, and turns.
The catch, however, is that weddings don’t often use the actual “Electric Boogie” song anymore. “That song is seen as cheesy, overplayed, and dated,” Adigun shares. Instead, he says folks often use “Before I Let Go” by Beyoncé or “Candy” by Cameo. “The Electric Slide plays a big part in getting the older crowd to join in on the dance floor. It’s a way to celebrate in unity and rhythm with every guest involved.”